The Worst Hard Time

Ken's picture

I just read 'The Worst Hard Time' by Timothy Egan. First printed in 2006, it's a deep dive into the personal stories of people that lived through the Dust Bowl. This is personal history for me; my grandparents were married in 1918 in Rossville, Kansas and ten years and four children later, they lost everything when the customers of their seed and feed store couldn't pay their bills. They migrated west, further into the dust bowl (in hindsight not such a smart move) and suffered through the dusters, black blizzards and locust plagues AT THE SAME TIME as the Great Depression was gutting the American economy. About the time the war started and the drought relented a bit, they moved to a "stump farm" in North Idaho, where my Dad and his little brother, Doug were soon born. They lived in a two room shack with six kids from 18 to newborn but it rained by God! Grandpa got government loans for building a barn and starting a dairy herd and between the eggs from the two massive hen houses he built and the milk and cream they could sell (and Grandma's small salary as the teacher of the one room school on Gold Creek Road) they managed to get by until better times came. There were many families who had fled the devastation of the prairies living on the hill but twenty years later, when I came along, there was just us and the Fitchetts, who ran a small sawmill and still lived in a shack papered on the inside with newspapers and pages of magazines. I could go on, but let me leave you with a suggestion to read this book and see what (some of) our grandparents went through during those terrible and terrifying years. It was the first major thud down the backstairs of industrial civilization and it was a doozy. There are more coming and it's best to be aware of just how bad it can get...

David Trammel's picture

My family is from Oklahoma, the north-eastern corner around Tulsa. The Dustbowl clobbered them as well. We had stories when they were alive of that generation driving to California looking for work and foraging for oranges in orchards for food. And of the poor reception, they got when they arrive. We're in for much of the same if climate change and sea-level rise take an unexpected acceleration and we start seeing many poor people on the coast flee to the inner states to resettle.

Ken's picture

I went to grade school for part of most winters in Ehrenberg, AZ just across the Colorado river from Blythe, CA (possibly the most ironically named city ever). There were about 90 children in 8 grades. 20 or so came from Quartzsite with me, 19 miles out into the Sonoran desert, but the rest lived in Ehrenberg, which was a straggle of shacks, trailer parks and a few houses strung out along the east side of the big muddy Colorado. These were the children of migrants that were stopped at the border of California by the "Agricultural Inspection Service". Calling a kid an "Okie" was a good way to get punched.

With no money, no jobs and no hope, those migrants had simply stayed where they were stopped. And 30 years later, many were still there. My best friend in second grade always came to school barefooted, which I envied, as my mother made my brother and I wear ill-fitting, uncomfortable shoes (with 'room to grow') to school, even though our feet were tough as leather from running around barefoot in Idaho all summer. Then my friend abruptly disappeared for a couple of weeks and when he returned he had shoes on. When I asked where he'd been, he told me that he hadn't been allowed to come to school without shoes and it took a couple of weeks for him to be given a pair by an aid organization.

That was probably my first recognition of the massive economic disparity in this country. And that was in 1969, near the peak of genuine prosperity in the industrial west. I recount this because those migrants never actually recovered from the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Even decades later, they were managing to 'get by' but they were far from thriving. Depression, alcoholism and poverty make for generational misery and I fear that with the coming hard times there will be many in the same situation.

I don't think that rising sea levels will have nearly the impact on the West coast as it will on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, simply because of the topography. Drought is what will impact southern California, the eastern portions of Oregon and Washington and the entire Southwest and high plains. And with drought, fires.

I see massive climate migration happening from the sunbelt cities of Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, El Paso, Las Vegas, etc. as the energy to power air conditioners becomes unavailable and/or unaffordable and the temperature extremes get more and more extreme and last longer and longer. For example: in 2020 Phoenix had 145 days over 100 degrees F, and 53 days over 110 and 14 days over 115 ! Especially when those days overlap with the monsoon season and the humidity rises it can be deadly to not have air conditioning there. And the existing infrastructure makes it even worse. The heat island effect of a sprawling concrete crusted mess that is one story high and 150 miles across adds significantly to the predicament. Those houses COULD have been built like the ancient cities of the Middle East but those design solutions to an extremely hot climate were ignored for quick profits and high energy consumption technologies. So where will those people migrate to IF they can afford to leave? And I mention this point because when everyone finally accepts that it's insane to live in the middle of broiling hot desert, who are they going to sell their houses to? I'm thinking the upper midwest is a likely destination. (Maybe it is a good idea to invest in Detroit real estate now while it's cheap?)

And where will the Floridians go? I suspect north and inland. Same with the Gulf coast. The hurricanes are only going to get more powerful and insurance is only going to get more expensive, if it's available at all. I propose that the upper Ohio river region and the mid-Atlantic states will start to look pretty good to plenty of people, even with regular polar vortexes in the winter.

There are 'interesting times' ahead Green Wizards...

David Trammel's picture

I suspect you are right, both sides of the Nation will experience vastly different climate ruins. The Far West will see largely abandoned cities that are reminiscent of the abandoned pueblos. Dry homes and buildings empty to the desert winds with the occasional oasis around a particularly deep well run by wind power. Perhaps small herders with migratory flocks of hardy sheep or even camels, in a landscape of dunes and scruff.

The East Coasts and the South will see the exact opposite. Flooded cities that are overpopulated with vast poor fishing in polluted estuaries between the ruined skyscrapers, with the occasional island of wealth, facing the wrath of hurricanes and toxic algae blooms.

A great environment for writers to explore but a poor environment to live in.

And I think you (and Greer) have it right that the Great Lakes multi-state region will become the new center of a much smaller American nation. Whether that joins with or competes with the Canadian multi-state region will be the question. Imagine battles between convict rowed galleys armed with black powder cannons and boarding cutlasses.